India’s North East is opening up to host an increasing number of travelers. The Dialogue Diaries™, an interview platform by Backpacking Series, is delighted to feature opinions of residents from the region. In this interaction, Motsuthung Yanthan, a proud young resident of the state, shares his candid thoughts and sticky anecdotes, and leaves you with compelling recommendations in this Nagaland travel guide.
What stands out for you about Northeast India?
Well, I hope it counts that I have lived in Northeast India, my entire life. Though I haven’t gone around in every part of the region, you would know something about your neighborhood without visiting or even asking for it. So, here are my top three things on this list.
Northeastern states are usually more green than concretes. For most part, you don’t come here expecting sky-scrappers and bright lights everywhere. You come here with the hope to reunite with nature, experience the ongoing shift from traditional livelihood options to modernity, and explore various kinds of cultures and traditions all packed in a small region.
One thing anyone can guarantee you in this part of the world is green. Everywhere you go, green follows you. No wonder, the top 3 Indian states with the highest percentage cover of forest are Northeastern states.
For instance, check out the view of Doyang river (above), the largest river in the Nagaland, which lies mainly in Wokha district. It is the famous resting area for the migratory Amur Falcons which comes from Siberia (in the first week of November every year) and leaves for Africa.
Diversity of People
Skin color may differ from state to state ranging from rosy cheeks to yellow to dark, languages may differ from state to state ranging from a more Hindi-like to ‘Khalang-Phalang’ to ‘Ching-chong’, taxi drivers’ attitudes may differ from person to person ranging from “Give me the actual fare” to “Aww you are so nice. Just give me only actual fare multiplied by 100” to “I don’t care if you miss your flight, I want 10 times the fare“, but Green is guaranteed and You. Will. Love. It.:)
The fashion sense among majority of the Northeastern youths is really impressive, compared with rest of the country (please don’t accuse me of losing modesty – my fellow Indians keep saying that themselves).
We sort of inherit our clothing sense from the east Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, and you know how they are. Being able to get half of what they are is still very impressive. I literally feel like a clown here and when I go to places like New Delhi, I feel like a fashion model, walking down the dusty streets with no money under the gray jeans (that looks great!) with a brown leather shoe.
There are many more things that stand out about India’s Northeast, but what’s anything without a suspense. Even life itself is. I have lived my entire 23 years in Nagaland. My state ranks 3rd in percentage cover of forest among states in India. So, as I said earlier, green is your goggles!
How’s the culture and lifestyle of Nagaland, your home state?
This is where I drop all modesty and wear my pride hat! If you have been to this part of the world, you’d know a thing or two about the people and agree with me. Yes, every society has the good ones and the bad ones, but if it’s about the average, they are kind and ready to help you – just ask. People are generally, very hospitable.
We don’t walk around half naked in our traditional attires with spears and machetes and head gears and ornaments, like they show you on the internet when you google about tribal people in the northeast. On the contrary, we dress-up with modern clothes and, as I said before, are even considered stylish by our fellow Indians.
There are very rich people earning lakhs (hundreds of thousands) and there are very poor people earning nothing. But, I can say this with 99.99% confidence that you won’t see a local beggar. As any tribal community, we are very proud of our traditions and practices (except headhunting!), and we are always ready to flaunt these on occasions and events.
What About Naga Headhunters, You Ask?
I met a backpacker a couple years back. Me and my friends were traveling from Delhi to Dimapur on a very shitty train and a foreigner was in the same cabin. We became friends. He said he was going to Nagaland (where we were / are from) in order…to meet…the headhunters there. LoL We were like “dude..don’t tell me you read a 17th century documentary thinking it was that day’s newspaper!” haha..no we didn’t tell him that.
We just kindly informed him that the practice had been done away with since centuries. Yet he was persistent to know more. So we advised him to visit Mon, a remote corner of the state, and see if anything worthy enough could be found, because Konyaks (the tribe inhabiting Mon district) were the last ones who practiced headhunting. Oh and, before saying goodbyes at Dimapur station, he tried Guthka (chewing tobacco) for the first time with us and he just loved it. Haha!
What are some popular food and drinks from Nagaland, Northeast India?
The Taste of Pork
Pork is popular. Very popular. If you ask around: “What’s special?”, you will probably get “Pork with this” and “Pork with that” everywhere. Every tribe has its own recipe of making curries and offers a peculiar pork delicacy – example pork with Anishi by The Ao tribe, pork with Axone by The Sumi tribe, and so on. In fact, daily staple food of the Naga includes rice, boiled veggies, hot chili, and pork curry!
If you go to a Lotha tribe’s restaurant, for example, you are most likely get pork with bastenga (a soft bamboo offshoot either smashed or sliced or both); and if you go to a Sumi tribe’s restaurant you are most likely to be served with Pork cooked with axone – almost decayed wet beans that might smell horrible initially but, as you start to “embrace” it, eventually becomes heavenly.
I have been waiting to say this, you have to try what we call “Thutse” (served in bamboo tumblers) and “Zutho”. These are local brews that not only taste wonderful but gives you wings way bigger than the wings redbull has ever given you. But you won’t find these drinks easily. Not many people know how to source these.
If you listen to me and come to Nagaland during December (and January too), you will find yourselves in the midst of Hornbill festival celebrations or “night bazaars” or other social gatherings and that’s where you will find them. Note by Backpacking Series: At the time of this interview, except for the traditional brews offered during festivals, Nagaland is a prohibition state. Beware of carrying alcohol on you when visiting. Know more about faux pas in northeast India.
Last year during Hornbill festival, we had a tourist who had passed out on a footpath after drinking too much Zutho. I felt sad for her but I didn’t go and pick her up – because I saw her only as an image on my phone. That picture probably went through thousands of other phones before it reached me. Poor lady. I’m sure somebody must’ve helped her get back to her hotel and warned her not to drink so much again and she probably didn’t listen because damn, those brews sure are addictive.
Nevertheless, if you can handle yourself (i.e. if your cerebellum is strong enough to keep in the right balance), these drinks don’t harm your body. On the contrary, we consider these good for health. Angamis are the healthiest people in Nagaland. I don’t know why but Zutho and Thutse have their origins from them, so go figure it yourself.
What is it that a first-time visitor might notice about Nagaland?
Nagaland has few of the most beautiful places on earth – some of which are chronicled here. But. Let me play the devil’s advocate. How? Let’s see. The first thing you would notice as you enter the state is the road (and the bridges – featured). The roads here are like a paddy field in the summer and a rocky desert in winters! I guarantee you would say, “Wow God bless these roads”, as you bump and turn and roll inside your vehicle. Haha
A couple years back, a European cyclist who had been traveling the world for the last 2 years on her bike, went through the state and commented that Nagaland has the worst roads in the world, and hey, who could be a right-er person to say that! It’s not a good thing but what’s the point if all you hear from me are nice things and the first thing you come and witness is a no-go.
But there’s good news: the government has started developing the wonderful 4 lane highways. Even at it’s half-way completion-mark, the infrastructure is starting to look beautiful and we are really excited about it. For now, enjoy the bumpy rides.
What is the best time to visit Nagaland and why?
The best time to visit the state is December-January. Because summer could be a little harsh in Nagaland. Besides, winter is filled with festivals and events and parties. 90% of the population is Christian so December and January are the only months where decorations fill every corner and people are in a celebratory mood.
More reasons? Well, Nagaland is called “The Land of Festivals” and even within these festivals, is the biggest, most colorful, most exotic, most anticipated, popular worldwide, THE HORNBILL FESTIVAL, aka Festival of Festivals which is held from 1st to 10th December every year. The festival is organized at The Heritage Village of Nagaland called Kisama (see above), which is about an hour’s drive from Kohima, Nagaland’s capital.
Nagaland has 16 recognized tribes and each of them have at least one tribal festival each. Each of them are hugely celebrated and people give their time and money and energy to make every event huge. Okay now think about if all of them are combined and made into a single event – that’s Hornbill festival. It features all the tribes, plus western and East Asian cultures.
As you enter the venue of Hornbill, you’ll see “Window of Nagaland” written on the gate. That’s the most accurate line – because you get to peek into each and every tribe of Nagaland, their dances, their songs, the food, their sports, their attires. They also organize competitions like Naga King chili (once considered the hottest in the world) eating competition, bamboo climbing (while both the climber and the bamboo are covered in mustard oil) and also pork-fat eating competition.
Come and witness one of these, you’d be surprised. Thousands of tourists attend the festival all around the globe. You are welcome too.
What would a helpful Nagaland travel guide look like?
Guided Tours vs Backpacking Nagaland
If I were a tourist visiting Nagaland, I would opt for guided tours in order to have more fun. Backpacking might get a little difficult sometimes. The roads are not in good condition, hitch-hiking doesn’t usually work (unless it’s on trucks), and you may miss out on the best tourist spots in Nagaland, because there’s good distance between them.
You don’t want to be backpacking without proper plans going to and fro between places that could’ve been all visited as a circuit. Dorms or hostels aren’t popular yet. Probably because there aren’t many tourists here round the year. A guided tour would sort things for you.
But that’s the case everywhere – guided tours are awesome and you have fun but you always end up following someone’s back. That’s not adventurous. If you don’t want that, go backpacking and enjoy the few places that you visit to the fullest extent!
Of course, besides the adventure, backpacking can be budget friendly – be it public transport, local food, or guest houses. Let’s say for instance you have landed in Dimapur, and to go to Kohima by bus it’ll cost you a mere INR 120. The bus stops in the middle of Kohima, and so, if you want a hotel, it’s right there. A cheap yet good enough meal (rice, dal and meat) will again cost less than INR 200.
So if you manage to find a hotel in Kohima that costs INR 500 (budget guest houses are available but may not be in very good condition) and you eat two meals a day, you spend only INR 900 on basic needs in THE CAPITAL of Nagaland.
Travel Permits to Nagaland
If you are not from Nagaland, you would need a travel permit (Indian nationals) or a police registration on arrival (foreigners). Permits are a legacy since 1873. It’s relaxed for Dimapur district but not elsewhere (in the state). You can acquire one easily. Note by Backpacking Series: Know more about travel permits to Nagaland.
Getting to Nagaland and Getting Around
You don’t have much of an option here. Nagaland has only one airport which is in Dimapur, and one railway station which is also in Dimapur. Also, if you are coming by road from anywhere west of Sikkim, you reach Dimapur first.
Travel Hack: FYI, Dimapur is the commercial district of the state – things couldn’t be cheaper elsewhere. Now, you would want to move on to other parts of the state after buying all your stocks and supplies you can get from Dimapur.
I know many travelers love to get to a colder region, soon! So, the next place you will go is Kohima, the capital district. There are beautiful places to visit in and around Kohima – Khonoma the green village, Dzukou valley, Dzulekie spot, Pulie Badze National Park, Mt. Japfu, Kisama – The Heritage Village, etc. To travel in Nagaland, you can either take a taxi or bus. There aren’t any rental cars or bikes available as of now. It’s basically only buses and taxis from anywhere to everywhere else.
I don’t think hitchhiking usually works here, especially in private cars. There have been many incidents of people forced with ill fate after meeting strangers like this. Trust factor is weak now. But I have seen tourists hitchhiking trucks- they just hop onto the back of the trucks and go – maybe because the truck driver too wants to be nice and feel safe at the same time!
Travel Tip: When you take a ride on a taxi or bus, don’t forget to ask other passengers how much the rate is before you ask anything to the driver or the ticket dealers.
Identify Local Contacts in Nagaland
One thing I would suggest tourists is to have a trusted local person to negotiate things for you when visiting Nagaland. I don’t know why but considerable number of small or big business people think tourists always have lots of money and may charge you more. So, let a local do the talking – whether it be for transportation or lodging or food at a restaurant.
However, prices for many things shoot up during festive seasons for everyone irrespective of “We live in the same neighborhood man!” or tourists.
Is Nagaland Safe for Travel?
Obviously, no place is perfect. And, I do not like to sugarcoat things. If it’s not a major town you are in, remember that villages and the smaller towns are usually separated by jungles or not-so-populated roads. It would be better if you avoid traveling around here at night. Why? Because Nagaland and few other northeast Indian states are still faced with insurgency problems and you never know what may happen to you until it does and you wont have no chances no more. Be safe.
That said, I do not intend to scare you off. It’s more of a precaution. Otherwise, Nagaland has been ranked as one of the safest states in the entire country in terms of crime rates. Remember that people here live with virtues, dignity, and pride. You would feel safe and protected even if you are traveling solo. Note by Backpacking Series: Know more about travel safety in northeast India.
What are the dos and donts for visitors in Nagaland?
Don’t Ask for Money
Don’t just ask money, we don’t trust you (anymore). It’s definitely not you that we don’t trust but…there have been many frauds that act as tourists to take money from others.
I have experienced a variation of such potential scams: me and my friends were hanging out one evening when two guys, carrying huge backpacks, came up. They sure looked like travelers. They said their wallets have been stolen and don’t have even a single paisa to go back. They kept saying they aren’t getting any kind of help and, after talking for few minutes, requested for a small, a tiny amount.
We said we didn’t have money on us and wondered how a piddly sum (what they requested for) would help them get back anyway. Then my friend suggested them to consult a police station really nearby and we offered to guide them there…because, for stolen wallets, what’s a better help than the police? They were like totally firm on not going there. When we insisted on the police, they fled like we were zombies. The neighborhood was abuzz with such stories for some time and, we had doubts early on, and eventually they proved us right.
If you really do need that kind of help, I’m sure you would seem genuine. Note by Backpacking Series: Know more about faux pas in northeast India.
Do Interact with Locals
Speak with the locals. You can ask as many questions as you want and people would still take out their time to talk to you and help you. Most people understand and speak English. In fact, English is Nagaland’s official language. But many would shy away from the language because we don’t usually use English for our day today conversations, and it sure would get them nervous to try it on fluent speakers.
Anyways, I hope you find a young person to talk to, because they probably speak as good as native speakers now.
What’s your bucket list for North East India?
- Cherrapunji, Meghalaya: This was considered the wettest place on earth. Who wouldn’t wanna be somewhere that holds an exclusive distinction .. But it’s not just that, it also has the living root bridge – a sight to see, and of course, a bridge to walk, made by mother nature herself.
- Kaziranga National Park, Assam: This is a national park famous for its one-horned rhinos, a vulnerable species. And since it’s huge, going around here is a full holiday in itself. Sure deserves a line in the bucket list.
- Dzukou Valley, Nagaland: What’s a bucket list without a point for trekking in Dzukou valley in Kohima. The serenity is like nowhere else, the vast valley of greens and flowers. It’s awesome. Recently, someone organized hiking in the valley at INR 999 per person per night. Quite reasonable.
What’s a message you want to leave your readers with?
The Northeast Indian region has so much to teach you in it’s own ways. You can’t come here and leave without feeling wiser in some way. The northeastern people have so much to show you that no amount of reading on the internet (many thanks for reading this interview though! Haha) can educate you even half of it.
Whether it is a good or a bad thing that you have read or heard somewhere about India’s Northeast, don’t just sit back and buy it (not even from me). Be a part of it and form your own opinions. You are always welcome here:)
Think North East India
For those who do not know, North East India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow.
That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in Northeast India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices.
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